C.S. Lewis dietrich von hildebrand

Its Not Simple To Be Simple

6:00:00 AMJeremy Schupbach

This past Wednesday night, I went to bed thinking that, “I don’t want tomorrow to be Thursday, I don’t want to have to do Thursday.” I was sort of beginning to think that I wanted it to be the weekend, but then I realized I didn’t want it to be the weekend either, because the weekend presents its own set of challenges. In short succession I ruled out all the days of the week that I didn’t want tomorrow to be, and discovered that I didn’t want it to be any day at all. And believe me, that felt odd. Fortunately I got better and the next morning I embraced the insurmountable toil of Thursday and overcame it with a certain amount of dignity. 

This anecdote conveys that frustration we all have that life is tough, complicated, and it sucks sometimes. In general, there seems to be way too many things going on all the time. And if everything could Just. Freaking. Slow. Down. For a hot second. And maybe I could figure out. All this stuff. That is never figured out. That would be great. 

The point being, complexity is not a good thing. This was the theme of my last blog post, in which I tried to show that in Lord of the Rings, specifically through the race of hobbits, we are presented with a model of greatness based on simplicity. If you haven’t checked it out you should, because in this post I want to take the same theme even further, and present it in a way that is a little bit more applicable to us. 
In his book Transformation in Christ,  Dietrich Von Hildebrand devotes an entire chapter to refuting false notions of simplicity, and then showing what true simplicity is. Simplicity is not, he says, a poverty of meaning. To be simple does not mean to understand little. Simplicity does not in any way lack profundity, or it would just be stupidity, and ignorance of the true depth of reality. However, neither is it found in overly-intellectual types, who think that the more complex and complicated something is, the more profound it is. That which is simple is specifically that which is not high-minded and overbearing, but does not lack meaning because of it. 

“The simplicity of an entity increases with its height: it implies, as it were, the expression of a great meaning in one word” (1).

But simplicity also does not consist in reducing the cosmos to its lower principles. It does not consist in the “nothing but” reductions of modern philosophy which make claims like, “love is nothing but the manifestation of the sexual urge” or “consciousness is nothing but the movement of electrons within the brain.” For this philosophy tries to explain away the higher aspects of reality, like meaning, goodness, persons, and love. But as C.S. Lewis says, “If you see through everything, then everything becomes transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see” (2). Therefore, simplicity does not try to explain away what is blatantly before it (consciousness, meaning, love, and the like) but seeks to understand higher realities. 

Lastly, simplicity does not consist in plainness of platitude. These are the people who try to deal with reality always through quaint aphorisms and refuse to confront those situations which call for greater depth. They are incapable of profound self-sacrificial love, or even sadness or remorse. One form of this is a false childishness, by which one might try to hop and skip through reality as if it were merely a light affair and had no serious difficulties to it. 

And then Von Hildebrand cuts to the core of these errors.

“The basic error of all false simplicity lies in the assumption that it is a “simple” thing to have true simplicity.” (3)

It is one of the fundamental insights of Christianity that man and the created order (the lower) came from God (the higher), and it is our job to return to Him. The journey of life is a journey from the lower to the higher. It is an ascending one, and so it is difficult and steep. To be simple is not to remain trapped in what is easy and lower, but rather to strive for the higher. And the higher is simpler because it is the origin of the lower. God is the cause and explanation of all things. He is not complicated, but He is profound, for He is the source of profundity. He is indeed the one Word containing all meaning, and if we would be simple then we would seek to understand and pursue Him. 

It is only by recognizing the value of God that we understand ourselves and the created order. Only when we place our own standing and relation with God at the center of our lives, such that all other aspects are interpreted in light of that aspect. What could be more simple than one desire focused on the one thing that fulfills all desire? Only with this kind of simplicity can we coordinate the manifold complexities of the natural order in such a way as to apprehend meaning, without altogether ignoring meaning. 

Simplicity knows what meaning consists in, and it pursues it even when it is hard. In fact, when it gets hard is where the non-simple people quit. To return for a moment to Lord of the Rings, when the fate of the world depends on your friend getting to the top of a mountain in short order, and he can no longer climb because he bears a heavy burden that only he can carry, what do you do? 

“I can’t carry it for you Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.” (4)

And so Sam accomplishes the impossible task of carrying his friend up Mt. Doom. Because the one thing that had to be done was not easy, but Sam was simple. 

If we cannot find the one thing that explains all things, then there can be no true simplicity. Life, then, is nothing but an array of pains and pleasures. But if we find the one thing, if our life is centered around God, then both pain and pleasure take on meaning, life’s complexities begin to make sense, and it becomes worth it for me to wake up on Thursday morning.  

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(1) Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Transformation in Christ. Pg. 68
(2) Lewis, C.S. Abolition of Man. 
(3) Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Transformation in Christ. Pg. 71
(4) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King.

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